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Name: _____________________

Date: _____________________

Fish Cheeks
Amy Tan

I fell in love with the minister's son the winter I

turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary
in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired
boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.
When I found out that my parents had invited the
minister's family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What
would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What
would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked
proper American manners? What terrible disappoint-ment
would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet
potatoes but Chinese food?
On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone
herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black
veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was
littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock
cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a
pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of
rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus back to
life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife
markings so they resembled bicycle tires.
And then they arrived – the minister's family and all
my relatives in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled Christmas
packages. Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not
worthy of existence.
Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives
licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the
table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food.
Robert and his family waited patiently for platters to be
passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure when
my mother brought out the whole steamed fish. Robert
grimaced. Then my father poked his chopsticks just below
the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. "Amy, your
favorite," he said, offering me the tender fish cheek. I wanted
to disappear.
At the end of the meal my father leaned back and
belched loudly, thanking my mother for her fine cooking.
"It's a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,"
explained my father to our astonished guests. Robert was
looking down at his plate with a reddened face. The minister
managed to muster up a quiet burp. I was stunned into
silence for the rest of the night.
After everyone had gone, my mother said to me,
"You want to be the same as American girls on the outside."
She handed me an early gift. It was a miniskirt in beige
tweed. "But inside you must always be Chinese. You must
be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have
And even though I didn't agree with her then, I knew
that she understood how much I had suffered during the
evening's dinner. It wasn't until many years later – long after
I had gotten over my crush on Robert – that I was able to
fully appreciate her lesson and the true purpose behind our
particular menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen
all my favorite foods.